More or less randomly I was reading a thread on the Agony Booth and got thinking about fan fiction and how it relates to writing more generally. I generally look at fan fiction as a benign thing, as long as the fan work doesn’t start infringing on the rights of the original, (i.e. isn’t commercial.)
Of course, it is very unlikely to become a pro writer doing fan fiction. Most franchises (those that do hire new writers to write new material) will expect a writer to have established some professional chops on their own before considering letting them play in their sandbox. In other words, it is unlikely that anyone’s first sale is going to be a Star Wars novel. Then there are the franchises that aren’t going to let anyone write new stuff, so don’t expect to sell your Potter slash until 75 years after J. K. Rowling kicks the bucket.
Since a lot of beginners are cutting their teeth on the stuff, and at least a few are interested in breaking into the pro market, I have a suggestion that grows out of my recent experience writing Lilly’s Song. The genesis of that novel was in an anime series I saw last year; one that I felt had one hell of an impact aside from its flaws. The impulse I had after watching it was, I think, the same impulse most fan authors feel— being caught up so much in a story that there’s almost a need to express your own take on it. The difference was, since I want to get paid for what I write, I couldn’t just write in someone else’s universe. What I did was a more thorough analysis of that need. I spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what it was about this other fictional work I was so affected and interested in. It boiled down to two main things, a particular tone (combination of tone, actually) along with a very particular relationship between two characters. Picking out those elements, and a thread of plot, I was able to take those elements and transplant them into another universe with a different set of characters (a fantasy 13th Century Prussia vs. a sfnal 21st Century Japan).
If you want to break out of writing fan fiction, I’d suggest following a similar procedure. Think deeply about why you want to write about Buffy, or the X-files, or Harry Potter. Be honest, and think about what attracts you, what is it you want to write about: Are you writing about your own characters running around a cool setting? Is it one of the cool characters in your own setting? The storyline? A mood? Once you find that element or elements, divorce it from the original context and rebuild it inside your own fictional world, one that can be universes away from your inspiration. If you write Trek fiction because you like the K/S dynamic, you can write your slash in any military organization in any period of history. If you decide you like Harry Potter’s boarding-school setting, that’s conducive to just about any type of story, even if you still want the mysterious magical campus, its still doable if you change enough of the surroundings; making it a hub of cross-universe study, an orbital habitat that might be an alien being, or maybe its a steampunk building run by a clockwork AI. What elements of a character attract you? A particular attitude? An element of the backstory? Intellect? Martial ability? Fashion sense?
The trick in taking a fictional inspiration and turning it into something original is to isolate what excites you as narrowly as possible, and build back out from there. Once you know what it is you’re trying to capture, you become free to change anything else, and the act of changing can itself become a creative engine.
NOTE: I’m only being coy about the anime that inspired Lilly’s Song because, for those who’ve seen it, it would end up being a substantial spoiler. I do give credit in the acknowledgements.